Highlights from EAGx Boston

Last weekend I was at Effective Altruism Global X Boston, a great conference that worked very differently from the academic ones I usually attend. The attendees were younger and the topics were different, but the big innovation was the use of Swapcard to encourage 1-on-1 meetings. At academic conferences I spend most of my time listening to formal presentations or talking to people I already know, but here I talked to 13 new people for a half hour each, and many others more briefly.

That said, the talks I did attend were excellent. Alvea is a 3-month-old company that already has a novel DNA-based Omicron-targeted Covid vaccine in Phase 1 trials. My notes on co-founder Ethan Alley’s talk:

Learning by doing is the way to go. I learned more in 3 months as a founder than 12+ months as an MIT grad student. Like that you have to pay a company $125k to randomize your clinical trial, and they take 8 weeks to do it

Richard Cash talked about the Oral Rehydration Therapy he helped develop that has saved tens of millions of lives. In short, many people who died of diarrheal diseases like Cholera were simply dying from dehydration, and he realized that this can be prevented cheaply and easily in most cases by having them drink a solution of water, glucose, and certain salts (basically Gatorade). He noted that much of the basic research behind this had been done in the US well before it was applied in the developing countries where it has helped most, so it was crucial to simply notice how important and broadly applicable the findings were. On the other hand, some things really did work differently in developing countries; here the medical conventional wisdom was that people shouldn’t eat while they had diarrhea, but if kids are already malnourished it turns out they are better off eating anyway.

Wave is a mobile payment company that is hugely successful in Senegal but has been slow to expand elsewhere. I asked their Chief Technical Officer Ben Kuhn why this was, and his answer made perfect economic sense:

Fixed costs plus local network effects. Fixed costs: need to get approval of a country’s central bank to operate, need to hire local staff, et c. Network effects: our system gets more valuable as more of the people you send money to/from use it, and these are usually within-country. Makes more sense to keep expanding within a country until its nearly totally saturated, and only then move to the next country. There’s also a limit of how much $ we have to expand, especially since we don’t want VCs to control the company.

(My notes, not a verbatim quote)

As I talked to people I was trying to narrow down my post-tenure plans. This didn’t really work, because people gave me good new ideas without convincing me to abandon any of my old ideas. Although I talked to several senior researchers at NGOs, the ideas that stuck with me most came from talking to undergrads, and were all things that sound obvious in hindsight but that I hadn’t actually been planning to do. The one I’ll mention here as a commitment device is to post my research ideas on my website. I have many more paper ideas than I have time to write about them, and I no longer care much about whether I get credit/publications for them or someone else does. This summer I’ll post a list of ideas there, and perhaps a series of posts fleshing them out here.

P.S. If you identify at all with Effective Altruism, I recommend trying to attend a conference. I’m planning to go next to the one in DC in September.

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